Thyroid troubles

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The thyroid is a butterfly-shaped gland in your neck, just above your collarbone. It is one of your endocrine glands that produce hormones. Thyroid hormones control your body’s metabolism, which impacts on how fast you burn calories and how fast your heart beats.The thyroid is a butterfly-shaped gland in your neck, just above your collarbone. It is one of your endocrine glands that produce hormones. Thyroid hormones control your body’s metabolism, which impacts on how fast you burn calories and how fast your heart beats.

Hoping to get her weight problem under control, Sha Ren, like thousands of Malaysian women battling the bulge, signed up for a gym membership and a personal trainer package. She went to the gym three or four times a week, and the trainers put her though cardio work, machines and free weights to help build and tone muscles, which burn fat more efficiently.

But despite exercising religiously and watching her food intake, six months on, Sha Ren had not shed the kilos promised. Sure, her body did look more toned, and her fitness level had improved significantly, but weight-wise, she had only lost a grand total of six pounds.

When confronted with her apparently lack of progress, the fitness instructor put it down to her metabolic system, which he said was “so sluggish” that it would take “a superhuman” effort to push start it.

Thoroughly dejected, Sha Ren stopped going to the gym. After all, if she could not lose weight even with a personal trainer, it seemed pointless to continue. Depressed, she went back to her sedentary lifestyle and the pounds kept piling on.

It was only when her doctor recommended she undergo a thyroid test, which showed that her thyroid was not functioning, that Sha Ren finally understood why she had so much trouble losing weight.

Controlling your metabolism

The thyroid is a butterfly-shaped gland in your neck, just above your collarbone. It is one of your endocrine glands that produce hormones. Thyroid hormones control your body’s metabolism, which impacts on how fast you burn calories and how fast your heart beats.

According to reports, around the world, over 200 million people suffer from thyroid problems, and over 50% are not aware of it as the disease may be silent. In fact, women are 10 times more likely than men to suffer from thyroid diseases such as hypothyroidism and hyperthyroidism.

Sha Ren’s condition, known as hypothyroidism, occurs when the thyroid gland is not active enough, and does not make enough thyroid hormone to meet the body’s needs.

Worldwide, too little iodine in the diet is the most common cause of hypothyroidism.

In children, hypothyroidism leads to delays in growth and intellectual development, which is known as cretinism in severe cases. The diagnosis of hypothyroidism can be confirmed with blood tests measuring thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH) and thyroxine levels.

According to a newspaper report, certain people are more at risk of hypothyroidism. They include women, especially those who are pregnant, during the immediate post-delivery period and after the menopause, those with a family history of autoimmune thyroiditis or other immune diseases such as type 1 diabetes, those aged over 50, patients who have undergone thyroid surgery, those with Down’s or Turner’s syndrome, people with exposure of the neck to X-ray or radiation treatments, and Caucasians and Asians.

The symptoms of hypothyroidism include fatigue, weight gain, puffy face, cold intolerance, thinning hair, heavy or irregular menstrual cycles, weak or slow heartbeat, depression and constipation, among others.

In fact, several studies have shown a link between mental disease and untreated thyroid problems.

According to medical journals, women, especially those older than 50 years of age, are more likely to have hypothyroidism than men are. What’s worse is that if left untreated, hypothyroidism can cause obesity, joint pain, infertility and heart disease.

Luckily for Sha Ren, treatment is fairly straightforward and involves taking a synthetic thyroid hormone medication to increase the hormone level in the body (the dosage, however, needs to be carefully adjusted by the doctor following repeated TSH tests).

Too little, too much

The other extreme is when the thyroid gland produces too much hormone for the body. The condition, known as hyperthyroidism, is also more common in women, people with other thyroid problems, and those over 60 years old.

The most common cause is an autoimmune disorder known as Grave’s disease, but other causes include thyroid nodules, thyroiditis, consuming too much iodine, and taking too much synthetic thyroid hormone.

Symptoms include mood swings, rapid and irregular heartbeat, heat intolerance, problems sleeping, fatigue, weight loss, and goiter, etc.

Treatment for hyperthyroidism is a bit more complicated: it could involve taking medication, radioiodine therapy, or even thyroid surgery.

Sally Chew, who underwent surgery to remove part of her thyroid in her mid-twenties, says she suffered from severe mood swings and fatigue due to a hyperactive thyroid. “I was constantly irritable, and my friends would have a hard time coming to grips with my moods. I was also reed thin, despite eating a lot and alcoholic binges.

“It took several trips to the doctor before I was referred to an endocrine specialist who managed to diagnose the problem. He tried me out on radioiodine therapy first, but there were complications. Surgery was the next option, and it has helped tremendously,” says Sally.

Be aware that if you have a thyroid problem, treatment will result in gradual improvements to your health. But thyroid patients require life-long monitoring and should get blood tests to check their hormone level every year.

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